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Candied Cucumber (or gourds or melons)

After reading of candied cucumber, I was intrigued and also stumped. How on earth would you candy a cucumber? And why?

Equally, after reading Nostradamus' recipe for candying gourds, I was intrigued and also stumped. Why on earth would you bother candying a gourd? Also after reading the recipe through, what on earth was the point of salting them as part of the process? 

It took me a while to put the two things together. This I partiall did by looking up an online version of Gerrard's Herball. Unable to find any actual gourds to experiment upon, I decided to look them up and see how he described them. His writing on gourds starts here, and follows on from discussions on cucumbers, melons and pumpkins. His first description states that on the inside "the meate or inner pulpe is white... and sweete in taste" (p777). He continues to describe the flesh as "of temperature colde and moist." Having read this, it made no sense to me to try using a modern pumpkin instead, as these have a much drier flesh. It took a little further thinking and remembering on my part that cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and gourds are part of the same family (you'd think I would pick that up from their grouping in Gerrard's Herball under "cucurbits", but apparently not).

Once realising this, I also quickly realised that cucumbers were the most readily available, cheapest option to test this recipe on. And so I answered two questions in one, and candied cucumber became a reality....

The Process

The basic process for candying one's cucumber (or gourd, or melon) is thus:

  • Peel your fruit
  • Cut into pieces. For gourds, Nostradamus specifies four fingers wide and five long. For cucumber, I go with about finger size, this being comparable to some other recipes.
  • Remove seeds.
  • Place a layer of salt into a handy vessel. Layer fruit on top, covering over with salt. Continue layering until you run out of fruit.
  • Leave these to stand for three or four days.
  • Rinse salt off fruit.
  • Place fruit in a bowl of fresh water. Leave for half an hour.
  • Repeat above step another 11 times, or until the cucumber no longer tastes salty. I actually find it often takes about 14 washes.
  • Boil in fresh water, drain off to remove any remaining salt.
  • Boil again until the pieces are soft and easily punctured with a needle.
  • Put into cold water to cool, then drain on a clean towel.
  • Make sugar syrup.
  • Add fruit to sugar syrup, leave overnight.
  • Remove and reboil syrup, pour back over pieces.
  • Repeat several times, until the pieces are "no longer giving off moisture".
  • Coat in icing sugar (I usually skip this step)

On the Salting Process

My first attempt at candied cucumber did NOT go well. This was because I didn't know what a "wash" was, but it was critical to the desalination process. I stood and rinsed cucumber for half an hour, and it was still salty. Eventually I decided it was definitely less salty (even though it was actually still very salty), and candied it anyway. This produced a fairly interesting and unique sweet, which is really saying something, because cucumber candied properly is fairly interesting and unique by itself. Eventually, in some other reading I was doing (I can't remember what, sorry), I learnt that a "wash" means sit something in a basin of water for about half an hour, then change the water.

So, to make candied cucumber, I usually try to line up the salting process so that it ends at the weekend, because you need at least six hours straight where you can change the water every half hour until it's not salty. If you don't have the time to do this all in one day, you can do it a few batches at the time over several nights, refrigerating the cucumber in one of the washes until you come back to it.

Initially, I wondered what the point of salting the stuff was, when you were just going to boil it all anyway and put moisture back in. What I discovered by making it is that you actually don't. The salt sucks all the moisture out beautifully, leaving you with this sort of slightly denser cucumber. The boiling in water softens the cucumber, but doesn't reinflate it at all. A friend hypothesised that the salting alters or crushes the cell structure, which is why it doesn't just absorb all that moisture again.

The salting process always amazes me, because even knowing that cucumbers are pretty watery things, the pool of liquid that develops still seems like an awful lot.

On the Candying Process

Nostradamus just tells you to make a syrup from your sugar. I usually start by making it from sugar and water, using half the volume of liquid to sugar. For one telegraph cucumber's worth of candy, I usually start with about one and a half cups of sugar, and 3/4 of a cup of water. I boil it about half an hour the first time, then on each successive boiling try and reduce the mixture by half. I'll often add an extra half cup of sugar to the second boiling "just in case". For the final boiling, I'm aiming to get a hard candy coating over the cucumber (which is why I don't then dust it with icing sugar).